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Animal Instincts 

Fox & Crow aims to be something for everyone, but its niche is in casual dining.

If you must eat Crow, do it here. - WALTER  NOVAK

The handsome white clapboard building sits on a slight rise, surrounded by ancient hardwoods, on the eastern border of Avon. According to local lore, it began life sometime in the early 1800s, as a stagecoach stop along the rutted dirt road leading from Cleveland to Detroit. It also had a snug stone basement and reasonable proximity to Lake Erie; as a result, it saw double duty as a way station on the Underground Railroad in the days before the Civil War. Of course, times change. The Union won. Ford station wagons replaced the Conestogas. And the former stagecoach stop slowly morphed into a roadhouse . . . then a speakeasy . . . and finally a restaurant.

That same building -- expanded, remodeled, and repeatedly reconfigured -- is now home to the Fox & Crow, a rambling, atmospheric dining venue tucked beneath oaks, maples, and towering pines, some of which probably have been on-site since before the first stagecoach passenger set foot upon the property. Owners Mike Corpus and Ted Swingos -- two longtime friends with hospitality flowing through their veins -- took over the property about three years ago and obviously knew potential when they saw it: Why settle for one restaurant, they must have thought, when the building and grounds could easily accommodate so much more? As a result, the Fox & Crow is something of a compilation now, a sometimes-confusing aggregation of three separate menus, two distinct dining rooms, a couple of patios, and a romantic second-story porch with a treetop view of Detroit Road.

Dining options range from the Fox's Run, a casual outdoor bar and grill with a menu of steaks, sandwiches, and barbecued ribs and chicken, to the Fox's Den, an indoor, Victorian-style dining room with an impressively large menu of old-fashioned favorites (think well-marbled Porterhouses and French Onion Soup), along with a concise collection of classics like Chateaubriand and Steak Diane, prepared tableside for two. In between, in terms of formality, is the Café Crow, a cozy second-story dining room and lounge with warm woodwork, strands of white minilights, and a tiny dance floor. A pianist often performs here in the early evening; on other nights, regional dance bands (like the polished Dukes of Wail, with their toe-tapping repertoire of jump blues, big-band-style jazz, and Sinatra-era ballads) play late into the night. Guests at the Café Crow can order from the Fox's Den menu or from a briefer café menu, featuring salads, sandwiches, and entrées. At the far end of the café, French doors open onto the broad porch, where tables, surrounded by potted plants, are set beneath the sway of trees in full view of the antics of neighborhood blue jays and sparrows.

Still, despite the different menus and differing levels of formality, Fox & Crow's food is much the same regardless of the venue: a conventional but generally well-prepared assortment of steaks, chops, seafood, pastas, and salads, as well as a number of Greek dishes like souvlaki, spanakopita, and flaming saganaki. Do not nose around here in search of cutting-edge cuisine. You will find nothing that is served raw. Nothing that is topped with pansies. And nothing that is presented stacked in edible towers. While the Fox's Den menu may be the only one to include high-end choices like rack of lamb and Chicken Cordon Bleu, it still offers the same perfectly executed Pasta Athenian Primavera as the Café Crow, albeit at a higher price. In a like vein, Café Crow and the Fox's Run serve identical chicken breast sandwiches, veggie burgers, and all-beef hotdogs. And that delicious saganaki -- a traditional Greek dish of sharp, cognac-flamed cheese, meltingly rich beneath a dusting of bread crumbs -- is available no matter where you may sit.

It also must be reported that the kitchen -- bereft of either an executive chef or a pastry chef -- takes its fair share of shortcuts. Thick, sturdy steak fries are obviously frozen. Breads and most desserts come from outside sources. The Land O' Lakes arrives at the table in little plastic packets. None of this is out of place in the more casual dining areas, but it's harder to justify in the pricier Fox's Den, which the owners characterize as a "fine dining" experience. Factor in the kitchen's apparent propensity for fiddling with orders -- substituting one steak for another without prior warning, leaving nearly half the advertised items off a Greek appetizer sampler, and sending out an open-faced prime rib sandwich without the anticipated sautéed onions and mushrooms, for example -- and diners are likely to feel miffed if they've set their expectations too high.

That said, however, it's hard to beat the Fox & Crow for a tasty casual dinner, especially while the weather is still warm enough to go alfresco. (The Fox's Run has a retractable canopy to shield diners from the elements, and both the patios and the porch have outdoor heaters for three-season comfort, making the notion of noshing beneath a mosaic of changing leaves a distinct autumnal possibility.) Among the starters, homemade New England-style clam chowder (one night's soup du jour), was amply endowed with tender clams and plenty of diced vegetables. A fine Greek Salad, spiked with feta, olives, tomato, sliced sweet onion, cucumber, and pepperoncini, was merrily embraced by a sprightly homemade vinaigrette. And the Greek Platter for Two -- with breaded and fried calamari, zucchini slices, and bacon-wrapped Poseidon oysters; squares of moist spanakopita; overly dry keftedes (Greek meatballs); and piles of imported feta, kalamata olives, and a bowl of cucumber-yogurt dip -- was massive and mostly good-tasting. (When the platter first arrived, it was sans the last three items, as well as a promised potato-garlic spread. After we brought the oversight to her attention, our waitress went back to the kitchen to retrieve the cheese, olives, and dip; however, we never did get any of that potato-garlic spread.)

Among the entrées, we likewise found few disappointments. Even without the onions and mushrooms (which our waiter eventually provided), our open-faced prime rib sandwich was impressively large, tender, and well-seasoned, and came sided with a cup of horseradish cream and steak fries; at $11.95, it was a good value. Pasta Athenian Primavera was also amply apportioned, with what seemed like at least a half-pound of attentively prepared Ohio City Pasta linguine tossed with lots of tender-crisp zucchini, yellow squash, red pepper, spinach, and artichoke hearts, and finished with a sharp, earthy feta cream sauce. Tenderloin Beef Stroganoff, with a savory sauce of sour cream, demi-glace, and mushrooms, over Ohio City egg noodles, was rich and hearty. And the Mediterranean Platter -- a Fox's Den special -- was remarkably generous, with two succulent double-boned lamb chops; three tasty lemon-oregano-and-garlic-topped grilled shrimp; a large -- if somewhat overdone -- pork chop; and a passel of bite-sized roasted redskins, with fluffy, moist interiors.

We had hoped to finish off our Thursday night Fox's Den dinner with flambéed Cherries Jubilee or Bananas Foster, but our waitress never mentioned the tableside cooking option. When we quizzed her about desserts, she nodded toward a cheerless-looking dessert cart. "There's not much left," she shrugged. "Our desserts don't come in until Friday."

However, on the following Saturday night, on the porch outside the Café Crow, we finished our dinner by sharing a whipped-cream-and-custard-filled Napoleon; although its pastry crust had gone limp, the filling was fresh-tasting and satisfying. (If homemade baklava and rice pudding were actually available either night, as Swingos says they often are, no one told us about them.) When we could no longer ignore the evening chill, we moved into the lounge and warmed up with a steaming Spanish coffee -- tweaked with Kahlua, Cointreau, and whipped cream -- and a sizzling version of "Jump, Jive, and Wail," from the Dukes of Wail.

Summer may be gone. But who says autumn can't be hot?

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